Out in the Forces: UK Version

Over the last year or so there have been many notable anniversaries of landmarks on the way to LGBT equality: 40 since Stonewall (June last year), 40 years since the first gay liberation march (June this year); 20 years since the first civil unions in Denmark (last year),10 years for those in Vermont (June this year), 5 years for the first full marriages in Massachusetts. Here’s one that passed me by – possibly because it’s more difficult to pin it down to a specific date in th year, possibly because it will have been missed by the American media that so dominate our news cycle.

2010 marks ten years of openly gay and lesbian members serving in the British armed forces.

Two specific dates are important here: in January 2000 the direct ban on “homosexual” servicemen and women was lifted, in November 2010 the regulations went further, making discrimination on grounds of orientation illegal. If you want a specific date for the ten-year anniversary celebration, I guess you could take a simple average of these two months, and come up – round about now, just in time for London Pride on Saturday, when there will surely be uniformed squads from the army, navy and air force marching with the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, they will be PAID for doing so! From a link at “Proud2Serve“, I can share extracts from the formal  “DEFENCE INSTRUCTIONS AND NOTICES” for the event:

This year’s ‘London Pride’ event will take place in Central London on Sat 3 Jul 10. Service and Civil Service Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) personnel will be permitted to march in the parade element. Following the success of the event in both 2008 and 2009, authority is given for serving members of the regular and reserve forces to march in uniform. Individuals marching in uniform on the day will be considered to be representing their Service at a Public parade and as such will be considered to be on-duty and may claim duty travel costs (but not subsistence) within the UK, subject to budget manager approval.

London Pride is a large public event which attracts up to 600,000 members of the public from the UK and overseas. The event attracts worldwide media attention and the very highest of standards are required to ensure that the Services and the MOD are portrayed in a positive light as modern, inclusive, employers that welcome men and women from a diverse range of backgrounds. A high degree of discipline and military bearing is expected from Service personnel participating in the parade. Prior to commencement of the March, individual Service Parade commanders will be expected to undertake an inspection of their Flight to ensure their personnel are suitably prepared for this high profile event. Personnel who fail to make the appropriate Service dress and deportment standards will be removed from the Parade. The orders of dress are as follows:

Royal Navy No 1 Dress with lanyards or equivalent
Army Service Dress/No 2 Dress
Royal Air Force No 1 Dress
Medals are to be worn by all entitled to wear them

Although openly gay men were not only accepted but expected in the military in former times, getting to this point after the low points of the mid-twentieth century was a long hard struggle, which still continues in the US. For the UK, Proud2Serve has a useful chronology.

Inclusion in the military is important not simply as a symbol of the armed services “catching up” with the modern world. As Peter Bracken clearly shows in a Guardian “Comment is free” article,  creating a culture of inclusion and equality in the military is a powerful guarantor for  entrenching that culture of equality in the civilian world. Here are some extracts:

These developments are all the more profound because, unlike their civilian equivalents, the armed services are strong culture organisations, distinguished by their members’ adherence to a strict set of intensely held values and norms. The services welcome and encourage this ethos because it fosters what they crave above all else: a commitment that is the mainstay of the soldier’s capacity to venture in harm’s way and perhaps face the ultimate sacrifice. As such, the shift in the armed forces’ outlook, such that today it is aligned with progressive attitudes, is of surpassing social and symbolic significance.


The monoculture that before defined the homogenized military ideal – white, heterosexual servicemen – has been replaced by a strong culture that celebrates diversity. Where once the military resisted convergence with the accepted standards of equality of opportunity, pleading its case to be different on the grounds of “operational effectiveness”, today it seeks to cast itself as the embodiment of those standards. It’s a seismic shift, underappreciated by sociologists and equal rights campaigners alike. And, what’s more, it entrains an appreciation of equal opportunities that is deeper than any embraced by its civilian counterparts.

A much stronger case for equality of opportunity locates it in the concept of citizenship. Citizenship is founded upon the principle of equality. Anyone who meets its eligibility requirements is deemed to hold the same rights. These rights are unconditional, such that citizenship enjoys a moral imperative – justice demands that individuals have the right to exercise it.

The military finds itself in the happy circumstance of being at the vanguard of this default claim on equality. And that is because there are few more potent expressions of citizenship than the right to serve in a great institution of state. Indeed, given the armed forces’ role as defenders of a nation’s constitution, values and – ultimately – citizenship, they are uniquely privileged to set the standard by which that citizenship is founded. The services, in other words, have within their gift the capacity to lead others in a commitment to deliver genuine equal opportunities for all.

As Bracken notes in concluding his piece,

We should salute their efforts.

And so I do. I hope you will, too.


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